The American Indian College Fund named Robert Bible, President of the College of Muscogee Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, as its 2018-19 Tribal College and University Honoree of the Year. Bible was selected for his outstanding contributions to American Indian higher education. He received a $1,200 honorarium at a reception in Billings, Montana.
The award should come as no surprise to those who know Bible. Even today, as President of the College of Muscogee Nation, a public two-year American Indian tribal college located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma and the capital of the Muscogee Nation, Bible’s favorite day of the year is the first day of school. He was destined to become an educator.
As a youngster, Bible enjoyed school. “I looked up to the teachers, coaches, and administrators at school. I knew it was the environment I wanted to be in.”
His parents had other ideas. They wanted their children to go to college. But Bible’s father, who worked as the head maintenance man at the school district, and his mother, who worked in Indian education, wanted their children, who were the first in the family to go to college, to become doctors and lawyers.
Bible decided to give dentistry a try, but knew after taking a few courses it wasn’t for him. He changed his major. When his parents expressed their displeasure, he left college. Bible took a job working at an engineering firm working on the business side of the operation and, after his first son was born, decided to revisit his dream of being an educator. Even then, as he returned to college as a student, he was coaching—his siblings!
“I tried to talk them into going back to college with me,” he says. My brother said, “I will be 40 when I graduate!” I told him “You still will be 40, with or without a college degree.”
“My background is similar to that of tribal college and university students,” Bible says. He is a Native man, was a first-generation college student, and stopped out of college after he realized his major was not a good fit. This background prepared him for his work as a tribal college president working with Native students.
After earning a degree, Bible entered the teaching field. Two years later, a colleague encouraged him to earn his master’s degree. After teaching for five years, he moved into leadership. His education career included administrative and teaching positions in diverse districts, from rural districts to wealthy districts.
“Students are students. Everyone needs resources to be successful. As administrators we can’t let money be the determining factor for success. I brought that philosophy to the College of Muscogee Nation.”
Bible says he believes students deserved the best. His own experiences in education inspired his desire to create a sense of place for students on campus for students. Growing up in Oklahoma City and attending a mainstream high school, Bible was not raised in his culture or speaking his language. Yet despite that, he says he still didn’t feel like he fit in. It took him awhile during his education and as an educator to find a sense of belonging. Knowing that, “We want to make everyone feel like this is their home,” he says.
After assuming his role as president at CMN he realized the importance of culture in students’ lives, right down to the design of the building. “I learned so much about the culture from the students and the faculty,” he says. “Our students are in the majority here for the first time,” he says, “and for the first time they feel at home.” Wanting students to feel at home at college, to feel successful, to do well, and to be successful and proud of who they are is a goal that keeps him awake at night.
Bible also wants young people to envision college as a possibility. CMN hosts elementary, middle, and high school challenge bowls on the CMN campus to help young people feel at home on campus at an early age. “We want to get kids on this campus, see what’s going on, and get them thinking about college.”
On-campus programs are also geared to prevent students from dropping out in high school. “In the ninth and tenth grades, we start losing students. Yet we know they are talented! This is why we participate in programs like the high school program sponsored by the College Fund and AT&T to get students on campus,” Bible says.
Bible helped lead the 10-year-long accreditation process for CMN after he came on board as the college’s third president (and ninth employee hired). The college received accreditation in 2016.
“Dr. King started the college with a $20,000 grant and provides wisdom and knowledge,” Bible says. “I came in that first year on its Board of Regents,” Bible says. The majority of employees are Muscogee, and the tribe made the commitment that students can attend college at no cost if they are tribal members.
Bible, who grew up eating commodities, also wanted to nourish bodies as well as minds, giving students a cafeteria that serves nutritious meals. Students living in CMN housing receive 20 meals a week at no cost. When other students inquired about cafeteria access, Bible went to the CMN Board of Regents on their behalf. Today commuter students receive 20 meals per semester at no cost.
Today the CMN campus spans nearly 40 acres, is worth $22 million, and is debt-free. “Now that we are accredited, students see our college as building a strong academic foundation for them. There are so many opportunities for research, student internships, and more. This is a classic TCU. At every position in the college we have grown our own,” Bible says.
Bible relies on the wisdom and expertise of those on campus, in the community, and other tribal college and university presidents. “I can call other presidents for advice and learn about processes such as accreditation; giving people ownership and the sense that we are working towards the same goal,” he says.
Despite his achievements, Bible remains humble. “Once a coach, always a coach,” he says. You can’t win games by yourself…I have succeeded because I am surrounded with dedicated, loyal people. To lead we walk beside each other. Leadership is not about one person; it is a team effort. I am excited, honored, and humbled by this award. It could go to a lot of people. None of us is doing anything different, it’s all student success-driven.”